In a race against time, Alec and the English delegation journey across the icy wasteland for the castle fortress where Emily and Cosmo are imprisoned. The severe weather is as much an enemy as the soldiers of the opposing armies encamped along the way. Awaiting him at his destination is the Margrave and his sister, demanding nothing less than Alec’s head on a pike.
Character-driven amateur sleuth
Non explicit (mild violence)
Story length 100,000 words
Deluxe Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 9780987243072 ISBN-10: 0987243071
Hardcover Coming soon
Kindle ASIN B015A5TLV8
FEATURED REVIEWDesert Isle Keeper Review—Lucinda Brant has once again constructed a deliciously complex story that is immensely readable and completely un-put-down-able. Her writing is a joy to read; she never talks down to her readers and allows us to follow clues without feeling the need to drop anvils on our heads or explain everything at regular intervals. The dénouement is as chilling as it is gobsmacking; and although I will say that I had an inkling of where things were headed, she kept me guessing right up until the last minute, and then completely wrong-footed me. If you’re looking to read a gripping, intelligently written and skilfully crafted historical mystery in the near future, then you need look no further than Deadly Peril. I promise you won’t regret it.
—Caz Owens ALL ABOUT ROMANCE
One of the things that I have come to admire about Lucinda Brant’s writing is how intricately layered her plots are. She reveals things throughout the story, which keeps the reader from becoming frustrated, but also holds back enough that the ending always is a surprise. Although Lucinda Brant has been publishing books for several years, my first encounter with her work was a mere five months ago, and I have now read all of her full-length books. Every one of them is worthy of five stars, but I think that Deadly Peril is possibly the best yet. It is, quite simply, a perfect combination of mystery, romance, and history.
— Lady Wesley Romantic Historical Reviews audiobook review
PRINCIPALITY OF MIDANICH, (EAST FRISIA),
LATE AUTUMN 1763
LEOPOLD MAXIM HERZFELD was breathing his last. Shrunken and weak, he was propped up on soft feather pillows. A white linen nightshirt with fine lace at wrists and collar covered wasted flesh, the collapsed veins in both arms hidden from view. He had been bled so often the fat-bodied leeches could suck their fill no more. In and out of consciousness, he rasped and gurgled, head thrown back and mouth wide, straining to draw breath down a tinder-dry throat to watery lungs.
A devoted servant had removed his master’s silk nightcap and in its place had arranged a magnificent wig, the flowing locks pomaded, powdered and curled, as befitted its royal wearer. In life, such an artifice to fashion complemented Margrave Leopold’s strong fleshy features. In his dying hours, the wig was a gross conceit. It served to underscore the state to which his health had deteriorated since returning to Castle Herzfeld six months ago, and why the whisperings about poison remained persistent.
A thousand candles illuminated the castle’s chapel, where prayers were said around the clock. Devout members of the court came and went, filling up the pews. Some stayed for hours, on their stockinged knees, praying for a miracle—that Margrave Leopold would recover. If he did not, civil war was likely, and this on the heels of a decade of war that had seen the country occupied first by an enemy and then by an ally, both wreaking havoc on the countryside and its people.
Other members of the court, who were not willing to leave the future in God’s hands, thought it politically prudent to loiter in the magnificent gilt and marble anteroom off the state apartments. They huddled in their court factions, arguing in fierce whispers, deciding if they would support one prince or the other, or remain neutral when civil war came. None could afford to leave the anteroom, for not only did they fear being betrayed in their absence by their friends, their movements were being carefully monitored by the household guard who lined the walls of the long room, and stood to attention at the doors to the state bedchamber.
Many a nervous courtier bedded down on a makeshift cot, sent lackeys to and fro for food and drink and to empty chamber pots. They scrawled updates to wives, mistresses, and daughters alike, who paced in their apartments within the castle complex, ready to flee with their belongings to their country estate at a moment’s notice. Some had decided to take the drastic step of crossing the border into Hanover—the only option left to them if they wished to keep their heads.
Foreign dignitaries and bureaucrats, too, shuffled in and out of the state anteroom, wanting news. No one could tell them anything, so they went away again, and sent their subordinates to rub shoulders with the bewigged throng while they wrote reports home to their masters for instructions—support Prince Ernst, make overtures to Prince Viktor, or get the hell out of there while the country’s borders and ports remained open.
Death of the Margrave was a foregone conclusion. So, too, should have been his successor. Son followed father, and had done for thirteen generations. Prince Ernst was the Margrave’s eldest son. Yet there were those who favored the more charismatic Prince Viktor taking his father’s place. But the younger half brother of Prince Ernst was barred from the succession by virtue of his common birth. The Margrave’s second marriage had been a morganatic one.
The Seven Years’ War changed everything.
Midanich was overrun by the French and then occupied by the English. Everywhere was chaos, battle and bloodshed. The end of war brought relief from battle, but not from hardship for the Margrave’s subjects. And further afield, across borders, political and economic alliances were being redefined and rewritten, and not to Midanich’s benefit. Many at court wanted a complete break with the old order, to which Prince Ernst belonged, and staked their lives on change. From his palace in the south of the country, Margrave Leopold had listened to these voices for change, and also to those courtiers who recommended the status quo. He had then journeyed north to Castle Herzfeld where Prince Ernst was stationed as head of the Midanich army, crossing the drawbridge and entering the main square with his entourage to the rousing cheers of his war-weary people, the obsequious bows of his courtiers, and the welcoming open arms of his eldest son.
Prince Ernst, who had fought bravely in the war, was honored in a public ceremony with the country’s highest military tribute, the Midanich Minotaur, a star and garter rarely bestowed. It was the last occasion the Margrave was seen in public. He never set foot outside the castle’s fortified walls again. Within months, the seventeenth Herzfeld to rule in an unbroken line from father to son lay dying.
The head physician had no idea what had caused the Margrave’s illness, but he was certain it was fatal. Yet the Margrave clung obstinately to life, his intermittent terror-stricken outbursts indication his mind was grappling with an inner conflict known only to himself. His physician said he was delirious. His priest said he was purging his soul of guilt. His son agreed with both of them. But no one knew what tormented him.
When the Captain of the Household Guard reported the castle’s inhabitants were becoming increasingly restless for news of their ruler, whispers of poison growing daily more confident, Prince Ernst ordered a second detachment of troops deployed throughout the castle. What happened beyond the thick walls of Castle Herzfeld was of no interest—for now.
The court chamberlain appealed to Prince Ernst to have a proclamation of some sort read out, at the very least to the courtiers in the anteroom, if only to quell disquiet amongst their number. Prince Ernst said the court could wait; death would come soon enough.
When the head physician declared death to be imminent, the prince had the bedchamber cleared of its occupants. The Margrave would spend his last earthly moments with only family present.
At the double doors the chamberlain glanced over his shoulder for one last look at the Margrave, whom he had faithfully served for three decades. What he saw made him turn and pause. It was not that his master was unrecognizable in his skeletal form covered in a thin jaundiced skin. It was that the Margrave Leopold had used what strength was left to him to lift an arm off the bedcovers and point a finger in his direction. Alarmed, the chamberlain scuttled back into the dim light, only for the Captain to hiss,
“Leave him, Herr Baron. He’s not in his right mind.”
The chamberlain ignored him. He went to the end of the bed, the Captain on his heels. The Margrave struggled to lift his head off the pillows, stare fixed, as if willing his faithful servant to read his thoughts. The chamberlain moved up the bed, even closer.
“I beg you…” the Margrave whimpered, looking past his son who had taken hold of his hand, to the chamberlain. “Don’t—leave—me… Not—with her.”
“Your Highness, of course I will stay if that is your wish.”
“He’s delirious, Haderslev. He doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Prince Ernst said wearily, then addressed the captain of the guard. “Westover! Get him out of here. He’s only upsetting him.”
“Of course, Highness,” Captain Westover replied and clapped a hand to Baron Haderslev’s shoulder. “Herr Baron, it is time to leave.”
“His Highness wants me to stay,” the chamberlain complained, and shrugged the Captain off to step closer. “So I will stay!”
“Do not worry, Papa. She’s not here,” was Prince Ernst’s whispered reassurance to his father.
“I don’t—” the Margrave muttered, agitated, and fell back amongst his pillows. “Ernst. Don’t—let her…”
“I made you a promise.”
The Margrave closed his eyes, but he was no less agitated. “That—won’t stop—her… She—she hates—me. Hates Viktor—all of us.”
Prince Ernst sensed the chamberlain and the Captain hovered at his back and he swiftly glanced around. “My stepmother,” he stated, as if they had asked the question. He looked at Captain Westover. “Countess Rosine is under house arrest, yes?”
“As you ordered, Highness,” the Captain assured him. “She is not to have visitors, and no one gets in or out without your permission.”
Prince Ernst nodded. “And my brother?”
Before the Captain could answer, the Margrave opened his eyes and turned his head on the pillow to stare wide-eyed at his son, and burst out,
“Control her, Ernst. Do not allow her to—to—rule you.” He let out a frustrated groan of pain and shut tight his eyes again. “Oh God, let this torment end!”
“Be still, Papa,” the Prince replied, giving his father’s hand a squeeze. He again looked to the Captain and the chamberlain. There were tears in his eyes. “For pity’s sake. Allow us these last few moments alone!”
Both men blanched white and bowed low. With a nod they backed away into the shadows to the double doors. The room was so dark it was only with the click of the latch that Prince Ernst knew both courtiers were gone. He also knew his twin sister was there, lurking in the blackness, biding her time, waiting for the others to leave before showing herself, showing who was the stronger of the two. Prince Ernst, the great military leader, fearless in combat, victorious in battle, was weak against the wiles of Joanna.
Princess Joanna appeared out of the blackness to peer down at the father who had banished her from court, banished her from society, and had kept her a virtual prisoner in this fortress for over a decade. She watched him tossing and turning in the big bed under the haze of yellowed candlelight and gently patted his thin hand.
“Papa, I’m here,” she whispered, kissing his brow then running a cool hand across his damp hot forehead. “It’s Joanna, Papa. Your darling little bird has flown her cage to save you. Papa…?”
The Margrave’s eyes blinked wide and he looked for his son. But it was Joanna who stared down at him with a loving smile. He was so overcome he began to cry. And when Joanna kissed his forehead again, murmuring soothing sounds, his thin frail body shook all over with great aching sobs that omitted no sound. She went about tucking his arms back beneath the covers, and then gently removed one of the pillows out from under his head, making sure not to disturb the elaborate full-bottomed wig, and so his head lay flat in the bed.
“It’s time, Papa,” she said.
The Margrave shook his head back and forth, but he was so weak and with his body now constrained under the bedclothes, he was powerless. What fight for life he had managed to muster in his plea to the chamberlain had vanished. Yet, he still had his voice, thin as it was.
“Ernst!” he pleaded, looking for his son in the shadows. “Are you there?” But when his son did not respond he appealed to his daughter, though he knew this to be futile. But he had to try to reach into her mind—to what was left of it. “Joanna. Listen to Pa—”
“I don’t do this for myself, but for Ernst, dearest Papa,” Princess Joanna said calmly, covering the Margrave’s face with the pillow and holding it firmly in place until her father was utterly still. “You understand that, don’t you, Papa? For Ernst.”
It was Prince Ernst who gingerly removed the pillow, to the sight of his father, small and frail in the big bed, mouth open, and the magnificent powdered wig askew and covering one eye. He gasped in shock, disbelieving his father was no longer breathing. He put his ear to his mouth, touched his cheek and then his forehead. But he knew, he knew as soon as he had looked at him that he was dead.
The Margrave Leopold Maxim Herzfeld, who had ruled the small principality of Midanich for thirty-five years, was dead. Murdered in his final hour. Prince Ernst, the decorated military hero of the last war, governor of Herzfeld Castle, and Leopold Maxim’s eldest son, would now succeed as Margrave and rule Midanich.
And his sister, the Princess Joanna, would rule him.
He burst into tears.
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